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South Florida Draws Overseas Patients with Severe Diseases

South Florida Draws Overseas Patients with Severe Diseases

Tuesday March 13, 2012

Broward and Palm Beach counties are becoming more common destinations for seriously ill patients from overseas who need sophisticated treatment that is unavailable or very expensive in their homelands.

These services are not just for rich foreigners who can afford big bills. Health officials said three-quarters of overseas patients coming to South Florida today are workers with health insurance from the Caribbean and Latin America.

While some uninsured South Floridians leave the country to find low prices on elective treatments, health care officials said they are stepping up efforts to find insured overseas patients.

Such patients already bring as much as a half-billion dollars a year to the local economy, but health executives said South Florida can bring more patients here.

Juliann Austin, 36, is one. The customer service representative from Barbados is spending six weeks here getting radiation and chemotherapy for aggressive breast cancer. She said standard treatment at home did not stop the disease from spreading and threatening her life. Her treatment will cost about $30,000, all covered by insurance.

"This is a godsend," Austin said. "If I didn't have this opportunity for radiation here in Florida, I don't think my odds would have been good."

Hospitals and doctors have been hunting for overseas patients for decades, with limited success. Now they are trying anew, especially in Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have not attracted as many patients as the Miami area.

Last month, the tax-assisted North Broward Hospital District opened an international department. Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale did the same in July. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce hosted medical leaders from the three counties last week, hoping to revive a stagnant campaign for medical tourists.

"This seems like a good time. The local market is saturated," said Dr. Francisco Gonzalez, international business director at Holy Cross. "We all need new places to find patients."

The top Broward draw for overseas patients has been Cleveland Clinic in Weston, which capitalizes on the reputation and outreach of its parent. The hospital has seen its share of medical tourists rise steadily to about 15,000 visits last year, about 5 percent of its total, said Chief Executive Dr. Bernie Fernandez.

The key is having ties with overseas doctors who trained at Cleveland Clinic or attended one of its many specialized seminars, Fernandez said. Those doctors often send patients here if local hospitals or nurses are not equipped for complex post-surgical care, he said.

In Palm Beach County, the Tenet Healthcare hospital chain and some doctors are most active in pursuing patients from overseas, said Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association in West Palm Beach.

No one really knows how many medical tourists come to South Florida. No agency tracks it, Stephano said.

Hospital officials estimate they collect $300 million to $400 million a year, the biggest amounts at six-hospital Baptist Health in Kendall and the Jackson Memorial/University of Miami medical campus. That doesn't count patients of private doctors, testing centers and outpatient facilities.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau surveys Miami-bound passengers at Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports and found approximately 1 percent coming for medical care in 2010, said Rolando Aedo, a senior vice president.

In the two counties, that rough estimate would work out to 240,000 patients a year and $260 million in spending for tourism — in addition to the cost of medical care. Many come with family members, as Juliann Austin did. When she feels well enough, she shops with her travel companion, sister Lanni.

One hotel near Cleveland Clinic said medical tourists are its largest group of clients, making up 30 percent of visitors, said the manager, who asked not to be named. SpringHill Suites two blocks from Jackson Memorial gets one-quarter of its guests from medical tourism, manager David Huntzinger said.

The campaign for medical tourists sounds like old news to some, who note that South Florida has tried at least a half dozen such efforts in the past 20 years. None have been out-of-the-park successes, said Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Health Care Association. Tax-assisted Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood dropped its international program more than a year ago because it attracted few patients.

Medical tourism fell off and is still rebounding from the terrorist attacks of 2001, when the nation sharply tightened travel restrictions.

Said Quick: "The tourism aspect of medicine sits up there like a pot of gold that people think they can mine. It's not that easy."

None of this matters to Austin. When standard therapy failed in summer 2010, Austin was told she needed radiation in the United States. She spent months unsuccessfully trying to find a treatment program that would accept her insurance. Paying on her own would have cost her $550,000.

Finally in August, she found Maria Freed at Oncology Referral Network of America in Dania Beach, which caters to foreign patients. The firm lined up a local cancer center to take a price negotiated with Austin's insurer and arranged her entire trip here — including rides to church on Sundays. Freed said the cost of her travel is partly offset by savings on tests that would be much more costly in Barbados.

Austin said her tumor is much smaller and her prognosis better for her return home in early March.

"After being here," she said, "I feel I have a chance."

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Tags: medical tourism, USA, Florida, cancer treatment, breast cancer, radiation therapy, Cleveland Clinic, international patients

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